Opposition rallies in Baku in first sanctioned event in seven years.

It has been seven years since the Government of Azerbaijan has allowed the opposition to organise a legal public protest in Baku. The last sanctioned rally was in 2005. An opposition rally on 8 April attracted several thousand participants and was addressed by the main opposition leaders Ali Kerimli, Isa Gambar and others.

The government of Azerbaijan has recently come under increasing criticism for the way it deals with the opposition. The main opposition parties are continuously harassed and their activists subject to all sorts of pressure. Amnesty international lists a number of prisoners currently in Azerbaijani jails as prisoners of conscience.

Optimists see the sanctioning of the 8 April rally as a positive step, indicating a certain relaxation on the part of the Azerbaijani government. Others consider it to be simply window-dressing, aimed at appeasing criticism ahead of the Eurovision Song Festival due to be held in Baku in six weeks time. The venue that was allowed for the opposition rally was on the fringe of the capital Baku, and opposition activists report considerable difficulties in reaching it due to government restrictions. There are also reports that opposition activists that had been distributing leaflets advertising the event had been arrested, charged, and sentenced to several days of detention, even though the rally was officially sanctioned.

The problems of the Azerbaijani opposition are not all of the government’s making. The opposition has at critical moments failed to provide a united front, and its message on many occasions lacks coherence. A new generation of activists prefers to agitate through the internet and social media, rather than through street protests. However the government has been closing the space for this too over the last years, slowly but surely. Ironically this creates a situation where the two opposition poles now blend into one, and the use of the internet as a means of amplifying the message from today’s rally was the biggest difference between the event of today and that of 2005 – which attracted more people but whose message probably reached a smaller audience.

source: LINKS Analysis

photo: Opposition activists at a sanctioned rally in Baku on 8 April (picture courtesy of Mehman Huseynov)